Republicans win, even when they lose. That appears to be the conventional wisdom after the Democrats' crucial victory in the Senate health care vote
December 23, 2009


Republicans win, even when they lose. That appears to be the conventional wisdom after the Democrats' crucial victory in the Senate health care vote this weekend. In its wake, media outlets gave credence to John McCain's assertion that thanks to President Obama, Washington is "more partisan" and "more bitterly divided than it's been." That followed the pronouncement of CNN's supposedly moderate Republican analyst David Gergen, who proclaimed the party line vote "a tragedy" since it did not garner a "super majority," a result for which "blame is pretty evenly divided."

To be sure, McCain and Gergen are right that bipartisanship is dead. But it is the Republican Party which killed it.

The numbers don't lie. For over a generation, Democrats have acquiesced in the GOP's budget-busting tax cuts for the wealthy, while Republicans instead presented a unified rejectionist front on the economic programs of Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. Worse still, the Republicans' record-breaking use of the filibuster since being relegated to the minority in 2006 has made the 60 vote threshold a permanent fixture of the Senate. As for Gergen's nostalgia for the political parties that passed Social Security and Medicare with bipartisan majorities, they simply don't exist anymore.

For Republicans, No Means No

The table above tells the tale. (Note that figures are not in real dollars adjusted for inflation.) While some turncoat Democrats helped Reagan and Bush sell their supply-side snake oil, Republicans were determined to torpedo new Democratic presidents:

Consider this year's stimulus bill. Obama's margins in the passage of the final $787 billion conference bill were almost unchanged from the earlier versions produced by the House and Senate. Despite Minority Whip Eric Cantor's earlier claim that Obama's bipartisan outreach was a "very efficient process," the President was shut out again by Republicans in the House. In the Senate, the stimulus actually lost ground, as Ted Kennedy's absence and the no-vote of aborted Commerce Secretary Judd Gregg made the final tally 60-38. So much for Minority Leader Mitch McConnell's January statement that the Obama stimulus proposal "could well have broad Republican appeal."

Sadly, President Obama's almost pathological obsession with bipartisan consensus only served to produce more political masochism when it came to this month's health care votes. In the House, exactly one Republican voted for a health care reform bill which passed by a 220-215 margin. Contrary to John McCain's mythology that in the Senate, there had been "no effort that I know of -- of serious across the table negotiations," Obama repeatedly reached out to GOP Senators like Olympia Snowe and left the writing of the Senate health bill to the bipartisan "Gang of Six." For that, President Obama only got what Senator Orrin Hatch (R-UT) called a "holy war" - and zero Republican votes.

If Barack Obama's experience with Republican obstructionism has been painful, Bill Clinton's was unprecedented. When Clinton's 1993 economic program scraped by without capturing the support of even one GOP lawmaker, the New York Times remarked:

Historians believe that no other important legislation, at least since World War II, has been enacted without at least one vote in either house from each major party.

Inheriting massive budget deficits and unemployment topping 7% from Bush the Elder, Clinton's $496 billion program was nonetheless opposed by every single member of the GOP, as well as defectors from his own party. As the Times recounted, it took a tie-breaking vote from Vice President Al Gore to earn victory:

An identical version of the $496 billion deficit-cutting measure was approved Thursday night by the House, 218 to 216. The Senate was divided 50 to 50 before Mr. Gore voted. Since tie votes in the House mean defeat, the bill would have failed if even one representative or one senator who voted with the President had switched sides.

But while Bill Clinton met with total opposition from Republicans, neither Ronald Reagan nor George W. Bush was similarly subjected to scorched-earth politics from Democrats.

In 1980, Ronald Reagan swept to power promising to cut taxes, increase defense spending and balance the budget. And in 1981, he delivered on the first part of that promise. With substantial support from Democrats in the House and Senate, Reagan easily won the battle to enact the Economic Recovery Tax Act of 1981, lauded by the hagiographers of the right as the largest tax cut in American history:

The House then completed the formality of giving final passage to the Administration bill by a vote of 323 to 107. Shortly before the House voted, the Reagan forces rolled to an 89-to-11 victory in the Senate. There, 37 Democrats voted with 52 Republicans for the bill.

Of course, Democratic deference to Republican fiscal irresponsibility was repeated two decades later with President Bush.

George W. Bush arrived at the White House with a federal budget surplus, joblessness at 4.2%, a 50-50 Senate - and no mandate. And yet that spring, some Democrats supported it just the same. With only minor changes (the tax cuts were not permanent, the estate tax was lowered and not eliminated, the total size reduced from $1.6 trillion to $1.35 trillion), the 2001 Bush tax cuts passed both houses of Congress with substantial numbers of Democrats voting in favor:

The bill passed the House by a vote of 240 to 154, with 28 Democrats and an independent joining all Republicans in voting yes. The Senate then passed it by a vote of 58 to 33. Twelve Democrats joined 46 Republicans in support of the bill in the Senate.

(Ultimately, of course, history was not kind to the Republican obstructionists who put politics before public policy. Reagan's massive 1981 tax cuts led to even more massive budget deficits, forcing the Gipper to later raise taxes twice. George W. Bush, too, saw the federal government hemorrhage red ink and presided over the worst eight-year economic record of any modern American president. Meanwhile, Democrat Bill Clinton's tenure in the 1990's witnessed rapid economic growth, low unemployment, balanced budgets and projected surpluses.)

For Republicans, the Filibuster is the New Normal

While Orrin Hatch was promising a "holy war" by Republicans to block health care reform Arizona's John Kyl was threatening "nuclear war" if Democrats tried to use the reconciliation process to pass the legislation with a simple majority. Why? Because the GOP's short-lived "up or down vote" talking point, like bipartisanship itself, is dead.

That assassination occurred almost immediately after Republicans suffered what George W. Bush termed "a good thumpin'" in the 2006 midterm elections. As Robert Borosage documented in June 2007, Republicans in the Senate have stymied overwhelmingly popular bills at every turn:

"Bills with majority support -- raising the minimum wage, ethics reform, a date to remove troops from Iraq, revoking oil subsidies and putting the money into renewable energy, fulfilling the 9/11 commission recommendations on homeland security--get blocked because they can't garner 60 votes to overcome a filibuster."


Former Senate Minority Whip Trent Lott (R-MS) was one of the essential architects of the filibuster fever in the Grand Obstruction Party. While decrying that "the Senate is spiraling into the ground to a degree that I have never seen before" and "all modicum of courtesy is going out the window," Lott was also brutally frank about his 2007 strategy to prevent any Democratic wins come hell or high water:

"The strategy of being obstructionist can work or fail. So far it's working for us."

The Republicans didn't merely shatter the record for cloture motions and filibusters after their descent into the minority in 2007. As Paul Krugman detailed, the GOP's obstructionism has fundamentally altered how the Senate does - or more accurately, doesn't do - business:

The political scientist Barbara Sinclair has done the math. In the 1960s, she finds, "extended-debate-related problems" -- threatened or actual filibusters -- affected only 8 percent of major legislation. By the 1980s, that had risen to 27 percent. But after Democrats retook control of Congress in 2006 and Republicans found themselves in the minority, it soared to 70 percent.

On Monday, MSNBC's Rachel Maddow put those numbers of threatened or actual filibusters into an easy-to-read chart so simple that even John McCain could understand it:


No doubt, Harry Reid's unseemly efforts to buy the support of Democratic health care holdout Ben Nelson were grotesque. But Nelson's "Cash for Cloture" is only the latest symptom of the perversion of the Senate guaranteed by perpetual Republican obstructionism.

This is Not Your Grandfather's Republican Party

Back in August, Senators Orrin Hatch (R-UT), Mike Enzi (R-WY) and Chuck Grassley (R-IA) were among the Republicans spouting a new talking point. Health care reform, they insisted, required a supermajority of "75 to 80" votes, more than even Social Security or Medicare received. Hatch redefined bipartisanship as near unanimity:

"I always look at bipartisan bills as somewhere between 75 and 80 votes, both Democrats and Republicans."


For his part, CNN's David Gergen has been spouting that same sound bite ever since and distributing equally to both sides when it comes to health care reform. As he put it on December 21:

"In my judgment, it's a tragedy for the country to have a bill this important, a stark piece of legislation passed with only one party voting for it. That is not happening, that's not been our history...

Every time we pass major social legislation in this country, we pass it with super majority. With both parties, it's so important to building public confidence, just like Earl Warren when they had the Brown versus Board of Education. He wanted to make sure it was nine, nothing separating court. He spent lots and lots of time rounding up everybody...

But it is a tragedy to me that it can't be done with more support from the other side. That this couldn't have been worked out in a more bipartisan way. I'm not sure -- the blame is pretty evenly divided here about who is responsible for that. But the fact is, the partisanship, the poisonous toxic atmosphere that exists on the Senate floor tonight in much Of Washington is not healthy for the country."

Sadly, Gergen is misreading - perhaps willfully - the politics and history of "major" social legislation over the past three generations. While the table above shows some Republicans voted for Social Security in 1935 and Medicare in 1965, today's is not your grandfather's Republican Party.

For starters, FDR in 1932 and LBJ in 1964 were swept into office on landslides of historic proportions and enjoyed massive Congressional majorities that dwarf those enjoyed by Barack Obama. Franklin Roosevelt's 18-point margin over Herbert Hoover put 42 of 48 states in his column, along with a staggering 472 electoral votes. In 1932, Democrats gained an unheard of 90 seats in the House and 9 in the Senate, for totals of 313 and 60, respectively. Johnson passed Medicare in 1965 a year after winning reelection with 61.1% of the popular vote, capturing 44 states and 486 electoral votes. After 1964, LBJ also had 68 Democrats to work with the Senate and 295 in the House of Representatives. No doubt, in each case the pressure on Republicans to accommodate the new, overwhelming national liberal consensus was immense.

But the difference between 2009 and say, 1965, isn't merely a question of numbers. Simply put, moderate Northeast Republicans and conservative Southern Democrats are endangered species if not altogether extinct.

After the passage of the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts, President Johnson presciently predicted Democrats had "lost the South for a generation." The 2008 election largely emptied New England of Republicans in either the House or Senate. There is no Jacob Javitz or Lowell Weicker in today's Republican Party, while the successors to Jesse Helms and Strom Thurmond are now GOP stalwarts. As Don Wolfensberger summed up the many differences before concluding in his September Wilson Center essay, "Health Care Reform and the Medicare Analogy."

Today it's hard to imagine any kind of compromise that would attract a sizeable number of Republicans in either house. The type of moderate Republicans who supported Medicare in the House and Senate in the mid-1960s is a vanishing, near-extinct breed. While the so-called Blue Dog Democrats are not as ideologically conservative as their southern conservative counterparts were in the 1960s, their fiscal conservatism could deprive the president of majority support for his health care reforms if their concerns are not addressed.

At the end of the day, 2009 is not 1965 or 1932. Health care reform may be third pillar of the Democrats' social contract for Americans, but unlike Social Security or Medicare, Republicans aren't going to help build it, period.

Analysts of all stripes can argue that Washington is broken and bipartisanship is dead. But there is no equivalence or shared blame for its murder. The evidence shows there can be no reasonable doubt.

When it comes to bipartisanship, Republicans are its willing executioners.

(This piece also appears at Perrspectives.)

UPDATE: A case in point is Democratic Senator ad Finance Committee chairman Max Baucus (D-MT). In 2001, Baucus voted for the Bush tax cuts. "'In many respects, I think politically I helped the party," adding, ''We Democrats would have been in trouble in 2002 just saying no to every one of the president's proposals." But on Tuesday, even Max Baucus had enough, lecturing Mississippi's Roger Wicker (R-MS) about the Gang of Six process Baucus used to water down health care in the Senate. Far from Wicker's claim that "my friends on the outer side of the aisle wanted to Europeanize the health care system of the United States of America," an angry Baucus responded:

"I want to tell the Senator that that is not what happened. I was in the room constantly, constantly. I talked to those [Republican] Senators many many times. That is not what happened. I'll tell you what did happen. Your leadership pressured them, pressured them, pressured them not to work together. There is no European style effort in that room, that is a totally untruthful statement. Totally untruthful statement."

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